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Adam Blatner, M.D.

October 17, 2005

This paper considers some of the psychological dynamics–intrapsychic and inter-personal–that may help us understand the processes involved in “forgiveness.”

Two Types of Forgiveness

Although there’s one word for both types, it’s important to differentiate between two types of forgiveness:
   (1) There is a possibility of reconciliation, because there’s a possibility that the other person might want to, or probably would be willing to try to work it out, and the relationship is worth it. How then to go about it will be the main focus of this paper, because there are some important ways to achieve this end! If more people knew about this method, the world would be a lot nicer place. This is the forgiveness of reconciliation or atonement.

   (2) Another type of forgiveness probably cannot be a mutual process, for a number of reasons. Perhaps the other person is far away, or dead, or would not be able to be identified in the mass–e.g., a soldier in another country generations ago who killed your grandfather or father. Or the other person has no meaningful relationship with you and there seems to be little reason that such a relationship might ever be established. Maybe the two of you just don’t like each other and there’s no particular reason you need to make up–you don’t run in the same circles. Sometimes the nature of the hurt was too great, traumatic, the pain too intense, the hate generated too poisonous. Nor are there any mutual friends or relatives who would benefit from your attempting a reconciliation. There may be other reasons, too.

On the other hand, occasionally past enemies do reconcile–there are some reports of pilots or soldiers on different sides in a past war finding each other and re-establishing a kind of international atonement. The hurt in such cases, apparently, wasn’t taken too personally.

Not that there isn’t a type of forgiveness process to be cultivated–but it’s more of a “releasing” than a reconciliation. No one makes up, no one apologizes. Rather, a certain burden of continued resentment and desire for revenge becomes recognized as a fruitless clinging to a fantasy of personal vindication, a childish, partly unconscious effort to restore a sense of empowerment. This complex generates psycho-somatic as well as psychic drains of energy and vitality, hardens the heart and mind. Releasing grudges and resentments is sort of a surrender into the realities of the present moment, an acceptance of what is that is a cleansing of the psyche. A little more about this may be noted later.

This paper, as noted, will focus on the first type, the interpersonal “dance” of actual atonement (at-one-ment). The first point is that few people on the forgiving or being forgiven side of the equation really know how to play their parts. By clarifying these operations, it is hoped that the activity of forgiveness can be exercised far more widely.

Why Forgiveness?

The opposite, holding a grudge, is just such a drag. (This applies to both kinds of forgiveness situations.) It feels burdensome, it draws you to “the dark side.” Here’s how that works: Faced with a psychic wound, a sense of betrayal, a snub, an associated complex of humiliation and vulnerability gets triggered. Some folks are especially sensitive to this, and these complexes are huge. Their rage or depression (depending on temperament or context) tends to be correspondingly strong. But even when it’s milder, the mental tendency is to magically counter the hurt. This is achieved through a number of maneuvers:
    1. Vengeance. Get back. Hurt them. Punish them. Show them who’s boss, who’s really stronger, who can hurt the other even more. Prove you’re tough, strong. Prove it again. And again! (Interesting how hitting back once when hurt rarely satisfies.) This is a core human tendency, and much of civilization rests on its modification. I think it was Freud who said that when the first caveman hurled a word of abuse instead of a rock, that was the beginning of civilization.
   2. Shut down, withdraw. I don’t care, I am a rock, I am an island. I’ll never speak to him again. I’ll act as if he doesn’t exist. This is a very common response, seductive because it gives both a sense of renewed power–“my walls are strong and high”–and also pushes the whole relationship out of mind, represses the parts that want to care and be closer.
   3. Telling the judge, telling mommy. The judge will punish. I need an audience, someone to notice that I’ve been hurt, to remind me that it isn’t my fault, he shouldn’t have done that. Otherwise I feel guilty for bringing it on myself, or ashamed that I was too weak and too cowardly to really fight back hard enough. I need relief from that shame and guilt, I need the jury to say, “You were right and he was wrong.” I need someone to make it up to me!
   4. Alas, you unconsciously take it out on others–people who remind you of the offender, or sometimes anyone around. Kick the dog, yell at the kids, feel so irritable that you blow up at the littlest annoyance. Justify yourself: Well, she did annoy you, after all; you were just reacting. Oh, but you were really over-reacting and hurting people who care about you. Lots of this happens, too, sorry to say.

There are numerous permutations and mixtures of these responses, but they all are inner dramas with little actual relationship to any external realities. Most of the time you haven’t even been hurt or robbed of money; only your pride, your sense of entitlement to your own thoughts about what constitutes respect, love, thoughtfulness. And not infrequently, if you were to examine this whole complex of injured pride and frustrated expectation, in the light of your most mature present consciousness, you’d recognize that you don’t need to hold on to these bad feelings.

Admittedly, there’s a gradient. Sometimes you’ve been hurt repeatedly, abused viciously, raped or violated, robbed or had relatives killed–the list of ways humans perpetrate wickedness on each other is lengthy. And reconciliation or even releasing the anger is hard, but there’s a certain point where the stress of replaying the aforementioned scenes begins to take a toll on your body and your other present relationships and activities. It drains energy from your soul and your social network.  So, forgiveness is an important cleansing, as if you really have to go to the toilet from your soul every few months or years.

Reconciliation or Atonement

Another reason to practice forgiveness–especially regarding those in your social network who might wish to reconcile with you--is that some of the  people who hurt you really love you or at least care about you. Also, not infrequently, the separation between you may involve some ways that you unintentionally hurt them, also, or intentionally, in spite. Perhaps it began with just a little thoughtlessness. Perhaps you or they weren’t thoughtless at all, but rather that what was thought would be helpful was radically the wrong thing to say or do! This kind of friction happens at least a few times a week in even the most compatible of relationships! So it’s useful to build in ongoing relational hygiene measures such as saying, “sorry, taking it over,” learning the art of a casual apology, diagnosing what the friction was about, re-stating the positive elements, and healing. Forgiveness is in this small way as much a part of life as your body repairing the millions of little moments of cell damage, microscopic infection, and other types of breakdown happening in your body every day.

Atonement isn’t a matter of subjugating yourself, debasing yourself, “Oh, I’m the worst worm in the world and deserve to be ground under your heel.” No, it’s at-one-ment. Our relationship is repaired.  Ideally, many hurts are simply overlooked, or if they’re big enough to do a bit of a dance of “Sorry” “Okay” about, well, folks just move on and don’t look back. That’s the innocence of kids, and healthy adults do it all the time.

It’s harder when the bump is bigger, though, and we’ll address some of the fancier steps of the dance of reconciliation soon.

The Art of Apology

The next level up involves the art of apology: For some who have played the role of being tough or cool for too long, they’ve darn near lost this role. It’s just a form of courtesy. (It can even be overdone, and in that case, either amusing or annoying.) But for those who feel like their teeth don’t want to let those words out of their mouth, consider this.

To apologize doesn’t mean that you are now so in the wrong that you’ve forfeited the right to be treated with respect. Just because you made a mistake, this doesn’t give others the right to impose any punishment, no matter how horrible. These are part of the residues of childish thinking that have been pushed out of awareness, and they are associated with either-or kinds of reasoning. So really, you lose nothing with an apology–well, except maybe for the illusion that if you don’t admit it, then everyone will think that you’re innocent. Kids (and presidential candidates) experiment with that variation, also.

In ordinary relationships, learning how to recognize when you’ve bothered someone and backing off, apologizing, is an act of basic relational hygiene. Sometimes the “sorry” has more to do with an expression of compassion–sorry that you’re not feeling well, or bothered–and less to do with any admission of guilt, because in fact the other person isn’t even beginning to think you did anything wrong. Sometimes it’s an admission of just the mildest of having been not empathically attuned. There’s a certain balance here. The key is to not try to avoid such acknowledgments that relationships jostle at times.

This skill then warms you up for more complex interactions that have to do with de-escalation of friction, conflict-resolution, and forgiveness. The first step, learn to open to doing it without having to get all defensive about it. Not easy for a lot of folks, but it’s no harder than learning to throw and catch a ball.

Talk About It

The next step is to talk about it without just slipping into blaming and accusation, or for some folks who too readily placate, self-accusation. Again, it’s a skill, one of countering all those neurotic tendencies to attack or retreat, and to instead just address the situation. Do we have some friction here?

Often the answer is no, or “I’m not aware of any.” Then you can check out what that nonverbal communication is about that seemed to indicate a breaking away in the relationship. Often it’s just a need to do something else, a distraction, and it’s not a comment on the relationship at all!  Don’t be too inclined to take too much personally.

If the answer is yes, though, it takes maturity and courage to inquire what just happened. Sometimes you know, and if you do, admit it and apologize and ask to take it over, fix it, negotiate how it can be fixed. If you don’t know, try to find out. It seems simple enough, but many friends and family members get derailed at this point into blaming and defending, or worse, blaming and counter-blaming.

If the friction or break is big, and there’s already been a fight, or a drawing away, then we’re closer to the ritual of forgiveness.

Using Third Parties

Think of these ideas as tools in your toolbox of life. Many situations won’t need or be helped by one or several of these “tools” or techniques. Pick and choose what seems to apply.

In some situations it helps to ask a mutual friend or respected acquaintance not to judge, but to facilitate reconciliation. There are some psychotherapists, coaches, mediators, who can play this role. You want to pick someone whose job it is not just to be your advocate, but who cares for both of you. Paradoxically, you need to be open to the breach in the relationship remaining, the attempt to heal will fail. You can’t demand that what they do will magically fix it. (If you aren’t satisfied with what the mediator or family therapist did, sure, get another consultation, the equivalent of a “second opinion.”)

Some situations really need a trained mediator or therapist to orchestrate these processes. I envision family reconciliators, a role in which no one is placed in the role as the sick or neurotic one, but everyone meets as equals. It is the relationship that is addressed as problematic, and the exploration pursues atonement.

Major Obstacles

This paper is no guarantee of a method that will work. It is a map for a method, and it’s helpful to even be aware that such methods exist! Most folks have no idea whatsoever how to proceed when there’s been a breakdown in relationship, in trust, in hurt and resentment. So the first point is that it can happen. But sometimes it can’t, when:
   (1) You don’t even like that other person. There’s no perceived payoff for having this relationship. This can happen between two very nice and worthwhile people, but they’re worthwhile only to those who appreciate certain skills, interests, aspects that relate to their common interests. These roles may have no interest whatsoever to you.

A review of what roles you have in common can be helpful. Often there is an alienation on a few key roles, but there may be a number of other roles that are quite compatible, and even more the two of you can enjoy and be helpful in certain ways. Or perhaps not. Still, it may be worth checking this out, listing the good times or positive potentials.

Do you have other people who need you to be close, or at least in a congenial relationship? If it’s you and your ex-spouse who are at odds, are there some kids whose life you could improve be being able to cooperate more?  Or parents, or siblings?  This opportunity for reconciliation sometimes comes up as a key family member may be dying or facing a life-threatening crisis.

     2. There are major incompatibilities. Certain endeavors will continue to put you at odds. You find yourself politically or religiously conflicted. If you have no other role in common, no other reason to get together, it may be fruitful to try to reconcile. It may be enough to reach a way of being around each other that’s polite, distant, and avoiding all discussion about the point of friction.

     3. There’s a distinct sense of alienation. Their life style, their very way of being is annoying or bothersome. And there’s no great need for you to re-establish your relationship, if you ever had one, even peripherally. The corollary here is that when the rapport quality is negative, even when you try to be friendly, it gets taken wrong. Oddly, there are often no specific events or issues to work out–just a sense of not liking the other.

The Forgiveness Method

This is for working out a big problem, a significant break, and there’s a good reason to attempt to reconcile. Whether you’re the intended forgiver or forgivee–sorry, sometimes it just works better to make up a word, “forgivee” for the one who seeks to be forgiven–, it’s good to know about this process. The process is complex and requires a number of different elements, each of which needs to be thought out and/or negotiated.

First, is there a prospect of at least the possibility of a continuing relationship?  If the other person has moved far away and there is little likelihood of further actual contact, that makes it harder. If the person, on the other hand, is part of the family and will continue to have relationships with others in the family, that increases the sense of need for reconciliation, if it is possible. Friendships are an in-between category.

Second, there needs to be at least some ambivalence, some degree of both parties wishing to make up. Often there are layers of pride, and these serve several functions. I don’t want certain other people to see me “give in.” (This part is aimed at third parties as audience, another family member, etc.)  Another function is the problem with coping with guilt–an issue that is very confusing for many people.

Guilt can seem like an all-or-nothing kind of thing, and if you admit it, you feel totally bad. What’s needed is a recognition that there are grades of guilt, and that it’s manageable, and that people can handle a fair degree and still maintain their goodness and dignity, especially as they reach in the present towards positive values. That’s what atonement (at-one-ment) is about, healing and love.

So part of the process involves adjusting these infrastructure elements. Both parties need to believe that atonement is possible. Part of this involves knowing the rules of the game, so to speak, knowing the underlying psychology as described a little further on, and the procedures that are needed. When both partners know how to do this, they have tools, and feel less awkward and vulnerable in taking on the challenge.

This requires both people to engage–it “takes two to tango,” as an old song proclaimed. The first kind of forgivness, releasing someone with whom one will have no further actual dealings, can be done by one. More about this later. But for two to reconcile, both have their own steps to take. Indeed, it’s psychologically impossible for the forgiver to really do it alone–we need some reciprocal activity from the “forgivee.” (Sorry, sometimes we need to just make up a word.)

The psychology of forgiveness involves an opening of the heart that comes only with a relaxation of fear, a natural orientation to higher values, and time for certain processes to occur. It cannot be simply willed, like picking up a cup of coffee. It is possible to generally intend to seek forgiveness and healing, but one can’t “make” it happen--the process itself is subtle.

Subtle psychological processes such as loving, imagining, creativity, spontaneity, or forgiveness  require a mixture of intuition and thinking, imagination and will–or in neurophysiological terms–and these are inexact–an integration or balancing of the so-called “right brain” and “left brain” functions. This integrative process operates seemingly by itself–not able to be willed directly. (It’s more like passive volition, that skill that comes with sex, certain bodily functions, etc.–you open to it, but if you try hard, it actually and paradoxically inhibits the function.) The “adaptive unconscious” or “subconscious mind” follows different rules for its activation.

Forgiveness has the added dimension of requiring a measure of interpersonal reciprocity–it takes both people to dance this dance. It’s not simply an intra-psychic or individual process, which means that it can’t be forced by, say, hypnosis.

Steps Toward Forgiveness

For those situations in which both parties are willing to move towards reconciliation, a number of steps are in order:
   1. A desire for a relationship is affirmed.
   2. An awareness of a break is acknowledged.
   3. The reasons for the break are acknowledged without adding blame.
             (A certain amount of blame is must be acknowledged by at least one party, and sometimes both parties can accept a measure of blame.)
   4. The forgivee opens mind and heart to the experience of the forgiver.
   5. The forgivee understands the behavior that caused the hurt and resolves to change, and is able to communicate that resolve to the forgiver.
     Most of the forgiveness emerges naturally at this point, but a bit more discussion may consolidate the gains. So, to explain this series a bit more:

1. Affirming the desire for a relationship in the future. There can be a number of components brought to bear at this point, such as mentioning explicit images, memories of past events that were pleasant, good parts of the relationship. Another element involves the awareness that the each person is available and would be an addition to the social network of the other.
      It could be as simple as “I’m sorry about our having become estranged and I’d like to patch up our relationship.” or “I still care about you and would like to make up.”

Ideally, it is initiated by the forgivee, but sometimes it might work if the forgiver starts it. The problem is often that the forgivee really has no idea how to proceed in this most awkward of processes–which is why I could imagine both parties reading this article as a warm-up. For the forgiver to start it is an act of special reaching-out and should be appreciated as such.


This kind of acknowledgment for any positive movement is the lubrication for the whole process. A for effort is the key. Thank you for even being open to the idea. I appreciate your willingness to consider this, I know it brings up painful memories. I also appreciate that we had a relationship and could have a positive relationship that makes this awkwardness worth the process of re-establishing it.

As the process unfolds, expressions of appreciation, saying thank you, can flow back and forth from both sides–it’s a form of encouragement or positive reinforcement as both parties grope towards understanding. It’s also a opportunity to test in small ways the good will of the others, as if a part is subconsciously saying, “I’m not too good at this, but I’m trying. Please give me credit for doing this much.”

2. Acknowledging the break. “We haven’t talked for a long time.” Sometimes the forgivee knows enough, having heard from third parties, a relative, a mutual friend, to recognize the nature of the event that precipitated the break. Sometimes this isn’t known. In this latter case, it still begins with an opening: “I gather that I may have hurt or offended you, and I’d like to try to repair it.”

Interpersonal Courage

One of the most poignant hurts happens when one opens up his heart to another and is rebuffed. This resonates to a very core part of our psychology, that dynamic that seeks to obtain and maintain relationships. (For a while, around the 1960s, a great part of psychoanalysis moved away from Freud’s theory that the mind is driven by sexual hunger and shifted towards this alternative formulation, that we are mainly driven by our desire for positive relationships. Now we include that plus some other key motivational sources.)  Shifting our perspective to a philosophical or spiritual viewpoint, the willingness to risk the deep sense of humiliation (even if no one else knows about it) is an act of courage.

What is needed is a firm guidance from the self in alliance with the “higher self” or one’s higher values, to reassure the inner child that the experience of hurt is illusory, symbolic, and really doesn’t mean that if rebuffed that one is less for the encounter. Indeed, one needs to become one’s own good parent or good older sibling, affirming and reassuring that reaching out to open relationships is a noble and courageous act, whether or not this effort succeeds. This grounding needs to be in place before true interpersonal healing can happen.

3. Acknowledgment of the specifics of the event: This is tricky, because there is a tendency to slip into not just blame–for to some degree, blame is inherent in this analytic process–but excessive blame, rubbing one’s nose in it, magnifying it. This is an error, and it may help to notice and withhold this tendency if the motivation for doing it is recognized. One reason is the fantasy that if the other person could just know how much pain was caused, and how foolish it was, the enormity of the sin would increase the motivation to rectify or make up for it. The problem is that if this is excessively magnified, the other person will just back off–the wall is too high and too full of barbed wire. The other reason is simply vengeance–the illusion that the forgiver can compensate for the feelings of humiliation when hurt in the past by sadistically getting back at the one who was perceived as the perpetrator. Again, an over-reaction will work counter-productively.

Lest it seem impossible, consider that it’s quite plausible to imagine a reporting of the event and the hurt without magnifying it. Even this will be threatening to the forgivee, but it’s incumbent on this person to tolerate a modest amount of complaint. This is in fact the major sacrifice that is part of the atonement process.

It’s very difficult, shaming, guilt-producing, uncomfortable, to hear from another person how you’ve messed up and hurt them. It happens to be the truth, and within a broader context of self-esteem and trust in a loving context–such as the aforementioned relationship with one’s “higher self”–it is in fact tolerable.  We must continuously differentiate between the impossible and the merely very difficult. To obtain forgiveness, the forgivee has to hear how what she or he did to the (hoped-for) forgiver actually hurt the other person. There needs to be some agreement as to the facts.

If You are Seeking Forgiveness

There’s a good deal of work in learning the role of forgivee. Most people don’t know how to listen and imagine what it was like to be in the shoes of the other person, to be empathic, in other words. That’s a skill that needs cultivation as much as, say, riding a bicycle, or perhaps more complex–learning to drive a car safely. It’s even harder to do when one is feeling vulnerable for possibly making a mistake, and prone to going on the defensive.

Ordinary defensiveness interferes with the forgiveness process and should be identified and suppressed. There are several types of defensiveness that are so common as to be worthy of note: (1) deny that you did it, or make some excuse for it, which has the function of denying that the other person has any right to feel put off, indignant, hurt, offended, etc. (2) apologize superficially and not want to talk about it further.

Beware Excuse-Making

At this point, the timing may fall off: Now is not the time to make excuses, because however valid they are, at this point in the process, they are counter-productive. It’s a distraction and a disqualification of the one who was hurt, as if the forgiver-to-be had no right to be hurt, feel betrayed, etc. Actually, a measure of this kind of excuse making can be done, but later– sometimes quite a bit later.  This is crucial. The forgiver is being reminded of his hurt and the old wounds are opened a bit. (Both parties are daring to be more authentic, opening the wound: The forgivee opens the vulnerability to shame and guilt; the forgiver, to the vulnerability of having cared, trusted (feeling like a fool when disappointed), and hurt.

4. The person seeking forgiveness, the forgivee, opens his heart and mind to what was experienced by the forgiver. This is even more crucial, indeed, the heart of the process. When a person opens his heart to you, it’s very difficult to not open your heart in return. What do we mean by opening one’s heart? Well, it’s a mixture of empathizing and doing it with personal sincerity.

The Art of Empathy

This is the key skill in obtaining forgiveness, and we need to teach it in the schools, have it become a part of life as much as using deodorant or not blowing smoke in another person’s face. It goes beyond courtesy and moves towards authenticity in interpersonal encounters.

First of all, it isn’t something that can just be done, willed, like the aforementioned picking up a cup of coffee. Empathy, like forgiveness, is one of those subtle skills that you warm up to. It involves thinking like an actor taking on a part, an opening of the intuition and part of one’s emotions to imagining what it might have been like to be in the other person’s predicament as the hurtful events were playing out. It, too, takes courage, and also the rare virtue of relinquishing one’s vanity and self-centeredness for a while. It doesn’t matter who was wrong, who deserves blame, who should feel shame or guilt; for a time, all that matters is what the forgiver might have felt, her feelings!

Now if you think about it, it’s really rather rare, sadly, that one person does this for another, opens his mind and heart to really imagine what the other’s situation and feelings were or are. Yet this is what I’m claiming is the key healing act, and when someone does it for you, it feels like, well, kind of loving. And it is. So that it becomes difficult to withhold forgiveness to someone if the forgiver really experiences the forgivee as truly empathizing, and caring and being sorry that the hurt occurred.

5. Well, still there is another obstacle. Just saying, “I’m sorry,” no matter how sincere, no matter how much empathy is expressed, still doesn’t suffice. It must be paired with a following act of self-analysis. Now I’m not talking about self-abasement. Saying, “Oh, I’m a wretch of a bad person, a worm beneath your shoe!” won’t cut it. Again, this is an illusion–working from the other end–that if I can beat myself up, I won’t have to do what is really harder, which is to take stock of why in the world I did that whatever-it-was-that-hurt and what I need to do so I don’t do it again.

In the Twelve Step Method of Alcoholics Anonymous, this is the step in which one takes a “fearless moral inventory.” Really, it’s a kind of self-analysis, or type of psychotherapeutic process. It breaks through the illusion that we are adults who know what we’re doing, and reveals the truth–that we are in many ways still childish or adolescent, we give into temptations and lack self-discipline at a very immature level, and further, we often don’t know how to do anything else.

On the positive side, we can also again own the relationship with higher self and recognize that we can learn, that this isn’t just a problem for the forgivee, or for people who are “bad,” but everyone has certain limitations, issues, unresolved complexes, and so forth, and this condition continues throughout life, even in the wisest and best of us. (Well, perhaps these issues and faults are less egregious, but they’re still there.)  So again, the challenge is to learn how to accept a measure of guilt without feeling overloaded or burned by humiliation. It can be done with practice, and truly mature people must learn this skill.

Part of the problem is that often one cannot readily do this kind of self-analysis and remediation. It might require some contemplation, talk with a friend, even some short-term psychotherapy. Still, it would be reassuring to the forgiver to hear something like, “I acknowledge that I get careless that way. I am resolved to find out why and take steps to reverse that tendency. I will redouble my efforts not to make that mistake with you again.”

It’s still not the time to make excuses! The forgiver will be alert, subconsciously sensitive, perhaps even hypersensitive, to any effort you make to diminish your concern for her feelings and to disqualify the seriousness of the hurting process. Excuse-making is correctly perceived as an ego-centric rather than empathic maneuver, reflecting an immature mind-set. What gets communicated is that the forgivee want’s to be forgiven without having to really change anything, and that’s a bum deal.

Most of the Time

Most of the time, folks don’t have the words. When they do have some words, they’re the wrong words. Too much blame, too much defensiveness. Counter-blame, excuse-making, distractions. Forgiveness gets lost and in its place is self-justification, letting oneself “off the hook,” or a phony process of pseudo-forgiveness. Okay, I’ll give you another chance–but the forgiver really feels manipulated into it, pushed by expectations from other family members (“Now you two make up.”), or wanting to trust–but really, not being able to. Sometimes pseudo-forgiveness happens because it’s the best that one can get in wanting to re-establish a relationship, but alas, neither party has been able to change anything deep down. Whatever caused the break before is still operating.

Using a Facilitator

First business, then law began to use mediators. In a way, mediators are kind of like marriage therapists. Sometimes it’s too late, and the mediation just arranges for a more civil mode of separation. Occasionally, therapy, counseling, and mediation actually effect a reconciliation. It depends on how early in the process of relationship-injury it all happens.

I’d like to see more people–not just couples, but other family members–do some relationship healing short-term-therapy. Possibly a several session series over a weekend. It doesn’t have to mean that anyone is neurotic, sick, or bad. Relationships get strained, broken, and the people feel bad. Sometimes they know or feel that it didn’t really have to be that way, it was tragic.

As one who has played the role of the mediator or marriage counselor, I think that it is tragic, especially when the two people aren’t clear about what the issues are or their motivation to continue. At least get those clear, so that a more conscious decision can be made.

Relationships are breaking up all the time, not just marriages. A parent becomes estranged from a child, a brother from a brother, an uncle from a nephew and his family, a grandparent from a grandchild. Sometimes neither party wants anything more to do with the other, but sometimes they feel sad–and it turns out, both parties feel sad.

Sometimes the break-up is about behaviors that feel unforgivable, or may be judged so by other friends or relatives. “After the way she treated you? Are you kidding?” “I could never forgive a man who did that!” In spite of these opinions from third parties, what is surprising is how often people will seek to make up even then! 
Then there are those hurts and resentments that burn, but the relationship is over. This involves the first type of forgiveness noted at the beginning of this paper. The other person lives in another country; is unknown or would require incredible efforts to find his identity; there are too many of them; they might be dead; there was no relationship to speak of to begin with; and so forth. Reconciliation is beside the point. This is that first category of forgiveness mentioned at the outset, and this process is more intra-psychic–that is, between the different parts of one’s own mind.

Part wants to let go, move on; part holds on, secretly hoping that some kind of corrective process can happen. Perhaps it’s telling the story and having the audience justify one’s victimization and turn against the perpetrator. Perhaps it’s sheer vengeance, the fantasy of sometime, somewhere, somehow getting back, if not at the person, at his name, his reputation, his family, his affiliated group. These are powerful seductions and many people dwell with this dark but curiously comforting complex of fantasies. Of course, though, they wouldn’t even bother reading this far.

For those who carry hurts and resentments and are ready to move on, here, too, there are a number of steps of personal maturation that are needed. I believe, first, in getting grounded in the positive. Some discussion with friends, journaling, prayer, contemplation, whatever is needed should be done to affirm that life would be even better, fuller, more free, having released the complex that wants to seduce the mind into what Freud called a “repetition compulsion.”

Repetition compulsion is that deep, usually partly or wholly unconscious, childish group of fantasies that symbolically rectify a hurt, humiliation, or trauma. They make it different, as if it didn’t happen, or it’s fixed, magically, by a variety of maneuvers: Telling it to a judge, or God as judge, who punishes the perpetrator. Wreaking revenge. Becoming so tough and/or powerful that no one can ever hurt you again. Withdrawing (or, as Simon & Garfunkle sang in the early 1970s,  “I am a rock, I am an Island.”).

When you don’t have other options, these are comforting. The other options are harder: Having something really meaningful and life-affirming to do. Clearly getting a view of oneself as being good enough to contain some episodes of guilt, loss, shame, humiliation, hurt, powerlessness, and the like, and still know oneself to be valuable and effective. Developing a relationship with God, friends, “higher self”–that supports and comforts, and reminds one of sufficient value so that the “dark side” loses its power of temptation. Still, these other, more mature options are more real and longer lasting, far more adaptive and leading to a greater capacity for love and constructive action in the world.

The second step in releasing is to do something more like psychotherapy, owning the hurt inner child, granting oneself the sympathy it deserves. Many people have coped by tightening up and denying that one was vulnerable–but that only buries the hurt part, doesn’t heal it. Healing requires owning it, and symbolically affirming that one’s tender feelings will be cared for. (On reflection, there’s even a process of obtaining forgiveness from one’s own hurt inner child!)

The third step is getting the whole episode into perspective. Sometimes this involves extending oneself to seek to understand why that other person did what he did, exercising the empathy in a different direction.

Another kind of releasing involves working out the mixed feelings that are part of a significant lost other. Perhaps it is a parent who has died. This process is complex because it has to do with identifying and re-working the inner messages that are retained. These inner messages are clung to partially out of habit and familiarity, partly because they’re associated with other unconscious fantasies of being effective or coping or achieving certain other seemingly desirable ends, and partly to hold on in one’s mind to the best elements of the lost other person.  So much of conventional therapy works towards the untangling of these knots.

Getting Forgiveness from Another, without Reconciliation

A friend reminded me of this variation: You know a person with whom you won’t be reconciling –they’re no longer interested, gone geographically, whatever. Still, for your own peace of mind, you’d kinda like to feel forgiven. Here’s a great place for psychodrama!  Find a practitioner who can give you a session: Set up a scene. Ideal if you can bring along some friends who can move into different roles, or perhaps the practitioner can provide some others. Or maybe just you, the practitioner as facilitator, and an empty chair.

Use the role taking techniques to play the other person and say the words you want the other person to hear. Start by you apologizing, hearing yourself enumerate the various ways you know you were thoughtless, hurtful, or in other ways deserving of resentment–and desirous of forgiveness. Allow the issues to go back and forth. Here you can give all the excuses you want, but then you need to look at all those, too.

Such processes can clear your mind, clear the air, and be part of a greater process I envision as someday being the norm for all people–that of ongoingly cleaning up one’s act. In spiritual terms, this is (in Sanskrit) called “sadhana,” a spiritual path, and I see life, learning how to mature at all levels and digest and integrate the vicissitudes of fate as part of life’s lessons, all as the way to move towards wisdom and spiritual connectedness.


This paper has reviewed the phenomenon of forgiveness. At this time, it is a work in progress and I’d be interested in further input. What do you like, what do you think should change? If I integrate a significant suggestion, I’ll put your name to it. Suggested references also welcome.

     References at  http://www.forgivenessweb.com/RdgRm/Bibliography.html

I am eager to receive your comments, suggestions, suggested references, books, articles that you've found particularly helpful.   Email me at adam@blatner.com